CHEYENNE, Wyo. — It was 4 p.m. Tuesday when the biohazard detection system inside Cheyenne s main post office detected anthrax.
It s a system that collects air particles as mail moves through cancellation or postmark machines and absorbs them into a sterile water base.
An alarm sounded within the building. An emergency response plan was under way. The system had found something.
The 300 employees still inside had to be evacuated and decontaminated.
No mail was to be delivered to the building upon the alarm sounding, nor was any mail to leave. Every piece of mail was to be isolated for everyone s protection.
U.S. Postal Service inspectors stationed decontamination command centers at each end of the facility.
Men at both sites quickly suited up in white hazardous-material outfits, all equipped with oxygen masks to their faces, neon orange boots and thick tape wrapped around the openings to their arms and legs.
Their mission: to claim the situation as a crime scene, retrieve the cartridge that detected the anthrax from the facility s detection system, remove it from the site and then decontaminate the employees and themselves.
The U.S. Postal Service held a live drill Tuesday afternoon to allow all participants the chance to test their coordinated response plans in the event of an actual emergency, said Lisa D. Gamboa, manager of consumer affairs and claims for the Postal Service s Denver office.
This was a simulated event that we ve been planning for months, she said. It was a live drill where all employees were removed and (mock) DNA samples of what was detected were taken to a lab.
Gamboa said the Postal Service started hosting such drills around Colorado and Wyoming after four letters with actual anthrax were confirmed in 2001 in the eastern part of the country.
Since that time, no trace of anthrax has ever been detected in the U.S. mail system – likely due to the deployment of the biohazard detection systems, which are now in 282 post offices around the country.
A system was installed in Cheyenne s main post office on March 26, 2005.
Originally, this was a way for us to look at ways to make mail safer, she said. Since these things have been put in place, there hasn t been a single issue.
Pam Durkee, an inspector with the U.S. Postal Service s Denver division, said Thursday s event came after eight months of training and preparation. Her division works with all state, county and city agencies to ensure a cooperative effort to address real situations as they occur.
With anthrax, the Postal Service has taken extra steps to ensure public and employee safety, Durkee said. And we want to make sure mail is safe.
About an hour after the alarm sounded, customers in the facility s lobby had been sent home, and employees were filing out the rear, all clothed in blue protective suits, to be hosed down in a decontamination tent.
At the end of the day, it was a mandatory exercise for every party involved. It was one that could help save lives if something ever did happen.
Rob Cleveland, director of the Laramie County Emergency Management Agency, said Cheyenne s post office was the big player in the event. The purpose of the drill was to test its biohazard detection system and to exercise the use of it.
We want to be ready prior to an incident, not during an incident, Cleveland said. This was a prime time to bring all agencies together to hopefully find some failures in the system. That way we can fix them now before something happens.
Laramie County Sheriff s Department spokesman Gerry Luce said Tuesday was about testing all those agencies on a broad spectrum of responsibilities.
It showed how well each could piece together the problem while working with one another. With very few communication snags, Luce said everything went smoothly.
First-responders got a sense of how to contain a situation like this, he said. Everyone worked together to make sure a situation like this didn t get too big.Agencies that participated in the drill included the Wyoming Department of health, Cheyenne Police Department, Laramie County Sheriff s Department, Wyoming Department of Homeland Security, Laramie County Emergency Management Agency and many others.